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Photo courtesy of Sarah Alekna.

Casting Director Sarah Alekna Talks Auditions, the Yin and Yang of Art and Commerce

Do a little digging and you find something striking: many of Australia’s most loved commercials and web series are cast by the same agency—Highway Casting.

Founded in 2015 by company director Sarah Alekna, Highway Casting is based in Naarm (Melbourne, Victoria), where Alekna is joined by her team, Annabel Clayton and Georgia Rickards. Before founding Highway, Alekna worked as a casting director at Mackintosh Casting for seven years and Chameleon Casting for six—and yet, Alekna’s love for her work is as palpable as ever.

We recently sat down with Alekna to discuss auditioning for Highway Casting, the yin and yang of art and commerce and much more!

You’ve been in casting for over 20 years now. How were you first introduced to the field?

I always find the divergent paths to a casting career interesting, as it’s rarely straight and narrow! I certainly didn’t make a beeline to casting or imagine that I’d settle in for over 20 years, but receiving the news I had been successful in securing my first casting consultant position was a very happy and ultimately pivotal life moment.

To answer the question more expediently, I had completed my very protracted studies across cinema, drama and journalism, and was working in production as a production assistant while very keen to get into casting. I’d go for the occasional audition as a goth uni student type or “girl at flower shop” and was very unsubtle about wanting to be on the casting team on the other side of the camera! I’m forever grateful my aspiration was heard. I was eventually cast like Judy Davis almost a decade earlier in My Brilliant Career.

Your team has a fantastic eye for unique and compelling faces. What’s your approach to finding talent?

Every project demands consideration and discussion around which approach will best serve the desired outcome, and very often, different roles will dictate varied approaches across the same job, campaign or film.

My big love of casting TVCs [television commercials] is very much informed by the unpredictability of the next brief and the glimpse into worlds and areas of expertise I often know little about. A commercial may require highly trained actors who are capable of depth, nuance and subtlety of performance or talent with very specific skills: enduro riders, ocean swimmers, farmers who boast prize-winning cattle, parkour experts or, as briefed most recently, a candidate skilled in being blown from a cannon—a very small pool we discovered! Sleuthing and research is an area I particularly enjoy, coupled with the privilege of viewing the work of so many wonderful and skilled actors across every generation.

Cannons notwithstanding, can you walk us through what a “typical” audition for Highway Casting might look like?

I loved the film Flashdance as a kid, especially Jennifer Beals’ equally terrifying and exhilarating audition scene—perfectly accompanied by Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling.” Jennifer performs to a cohort of chain-smoking, steely judges and has to dance with feverish intensity to break their collective lack of engagement. A typical audition at Highway is nothing like that, and we truly endeavor to create an environment that will allow all of our auditionees to feel supported and comfortable to do what they do best. In an ideal world, they will leave respected, encouraged, and with the “What a Feeling” song in their head—that is always our aspiration!

When you reflect on the actor’s booking or being called in consistently, can you spot any common threads they share?

Yes, and something we reflect on often. There are, of course, many variables as to why an individual actor may be afforded more consistency in bookings or being called in for auditions. However, being the most accomplished actor, having a significant showreel, or having the best headshots is not necessarily the overriding factor.

The idea that your energy introduces you before you speak is a sentiment I love and rings true in this context. Generally, an audition has already begun for an actor in the car park, in the interaction with other auditionees in the waiting room, at reception, as they walk in the room and communicate with potential collaborators and casting professionals, and all before the camera is rolling or any lines are delivered.

Good energy, preparation, professionalism, openness and flexibility can’t be underestimated. This might not guarantee a role the first, second or third time, but within an often very short window of opportunity, the actor has made a connection, and sometimes, without us even realizing it, we’re barracking for them. An actor’s investment in their work and mutual respect for ours goes a long way to instilling confidence and plants an invisible seed.

We’ve had some big conversations about diversity, equality and representation in the past few years. Do you foresee any other industry-wide shifts?

I’d want to emphasize that these big conversations need to be ongoing, but we are slowly starting to see some progress—particularly in the commercial sphere, with a lot more briefs reflecting diverse and inclusive casting. Big action needs to be in tandem with the big conversations and we still have a long way to go. As casting professionals, we have a big part to play in inclusive consideration and have to be cognizant of this across every collaboration and creative attachment.

In terms of other industry-wide shifts, I’m constantly distracted and excited by the future evolution of our industry. Casting can, historically, be slow to make big leaps in change, and certainly much of our process hasn’t shifted significantly over 20 years. However, the tools and systems we use to facilitate the process are always evolving. There are obvious ripples of fear that come with some of the more recent advancements in technology and AI-generated content—too complex an area to deep dive into here—but resilience and adaptability are a big part of our makeup, and we’re pretty good at converting fear into fuel.

You’ve said that art and commerce are the “yin and yang” of your world. Is there a lesson from commerce you think actors could benefit from learning?

It took me a long time to fully appreciate the tug and pull of art and commerce, particularly coming from a creative background and [having] my passions generally lean a lot more on the art side of the seesaw. I’ve come to not only appreciate the commerce side of our world but truly love the interchange between the two forces—the yin and the yang. As a full-time casting director and business owner, it is imperative to my survival that commerce features in my repertoire, so perhaps the love of commerce grew organically as a survival mechanism so I could stay in the role that I wholeheartedly love. Tapping into the other side of my brain proved to be a really exciting and unexpected evolution both personally and professionally, and potentially, some actors may also benefit from exploring the yin to their yang. Their longevity across an unpredictable career path may also depend on it.

Are there any myths about the casting process you feel would be helpful to debunk for actors?

It may be of benefit to be reminded that before an actor’s audition and participation in the competitive playing field, we [the casting directors] have also gone through our audition process to get the job they are auditioning for. The director, most likely has also had to throw their hat in the ring, as well as much of any creative team.

In advertising, the agency has had to work vigorously to win their client, and the production company has only been awarded the job after tendering a treatment alongside their competitors. By the time we’re interacting with the actors, we’re on the other side—high-fiving ourselves and elated we got the gig—but we have the deepest empathy for their process. We are obviously all playing different roles across a very collaborative process, but in many respects, we are all on the same team. Perhaps this may help to debunk a notion of infinite security for anyone in our world and further highlight how imperative it is to find real joy in the process and embrace the competition.

What’s a performance (or three) you’ve loved recently?

In no particular order of preference: A very young actor who attended an audition recently for a commercial campaign and embraced the session with such beautiful gusto and professionalism despite acknowledging his nerves. The audition process can be very vulnerable for anyone—regardless of age—but this particular little actor was able to bring beautiful authenticity to a small moment that was lovely to watch.

Emma Stone in Poor Things—an extraordinary performance in a role that I imagine was both physically challenging and emotionally complex! [And] I’ve recently been binge-watching Kin, an Irish crime drama set in Dublin that follows the war between a small crime family and an international cartel. The cast is collectively brilliant, but there is a moment in one of the last scenes where Clare Dunne’s character, Amanda Kinsella, is asked why she keeps on doing what she does, and she replies in her authentic Irish accent and dulcet tone, “Because I’m good at it, and I like that”. The sentiment made me smile.

Special thanks to Alekna for her time. Keep an eye on Highway Casting’s website, Instagram and Facebook for regular notices of upcoming open calls.

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